England ruthlessly finished off Australia yesterday. With the clinical precision of champions they took their opponents' last five wickets for a mere 31 runs. It was intoxicating stuff which enraptured the Poms in the vibrant crowd and illustrated that England meant what they said about besieging Fortress Gabba.
Unfortunately, between the fall of the fifth and sixth wickets, Australia had added 307 runs, enough to repel any potential invaders. The partnership between Mike Hussey, who made a career-best Test score of 195, and Brad Haddin, who scored 136, was the highest recorded at the ground and it enabled Australia to establish a lead of 221.
But how England failed to remove either or both of them in the first hour of the morning will remain a mystery beyond the most fertile detective brains. The wickets that clattered late in the afternoon could easily have gone down barely before the sun had risen over Brisbane.
That Hussey and Haddin did not perish was down to skill, of course, but also luck, human error and the fickleness of technology. Twice Hussey escaped lbw verdicts. First, he was given out but reprieved when he asked for a review that confirmed the ball had pitched outside the line of leg stump. Then he was given not out although stone dead, surviving because England were allowed only two unsuccessful reviews – which they had already had.
But there was much more than that in the most captivating of sessions. Jimmy Anderson, at his most intelligent and cunning, regularly beat the bat. Stuart Broad was not quite so potent but he asked plenty of questions, not only with the ball. Hussey and Haddin agreed later that it was the toughest bowling they have ever faced in Test cricket. Something, it seemed, had to give. Eventually it was England. The new ball lost its shine, the pitch lost its early hint of moisture and the batsmen prospered.
As morning turned into afternoon the Gabba turned into a fortress once more and England were left to ponder their four-man bowling attack. It is clear that if Australia do not intendto hit Graeme Swann (below left) out of the attack they will not let him settle. They will harry him, mess up his lengths, generally be on his case and by the end of the series the England off-spinner will feel he is being stalked.
The workload of the bowlers may also become an issue with the Tests being played so close together, but the failure to break the sixth-wicket stand will worry them most of all. Both batsmen eventually played with wonderful conviction and Haddin reached his hundred with a six off Swann. He had been dropped on 63 when Alastair Cook could not hold a chance he had to turn and run after. He was put down again on 113 by Anderson, also running back. A day that started so promisingly for Anderson had turned into something terrible from which there was no escape.
It would have been easy for England either to feel sorry for themselves or to cave in. Many of their predecessors found that to be the easiest course of action. Go one down at the Gabba and usually that's that apart from talking a good game for the thousands of misguided optimists flooding in from the Old Dart for the Christmas and New Year Tests.
There is more to this England than that and, as Hussey and Haddin showed, there will have to be. Australia's ability to snatch control of a match from a point of peril at 143 for 5, still 117 behind, will suggest to them that they are not as bad as everybody told them they were. England must remember that the opposition are not as good as they think they are either.
Haddin eventually went caught at slip off Swann and Hussey, trying to hook a six which would have brought him to 200, fell eight runs later. The chief beneficiary of the donation of late wickets – job done, any extra runs a bonus, get the Poms in – was Steve Finn, who became the first England bowler for 17 years to take six wicketson his Ashes debut (Peter Such took 6 for 67 at Old Trafford in 1993).
Finn will bowl better, much better down the years and take many fewer wickets. He was an ill-deserving recipient of such figures yesterday after the work that Anderson had put in during the morning, and he conceded as much. It was Finn's third haul of five wickets or more in his ninth Test.
England's spirit might still have been broken by the unexpectedly momentous events of the day, and when they batted anything might have happened. There was one moment of high anxiety to the first ball of the innings when Andrew Strauss shouldered arms to Ben Hilfenhaus only to see the ball crash into his pads.
What went through Strauss's mind then and when the Australians asked for Aleem Dar's not out decision to be reviewed can only be surmised for now. But 35,000 in the stadium, whether posted at midwicket or cover, assumed he was gone. Those behind the arm were looking to see who might come in at No 3. But the replays showed the ball was going over the top. It was a wretched shot but at the day's end England were saved not by technology but by the world's best umpire, who has had a sterling match.
The first three days of the series were compelling viewing, justifying most of the expectations placed on it. Whatever happens at the Gabba, the tourists, unlike on previous visits, will leave with much to play for.
England won toss
England – First innings 260 (I R Bell 76, A N Cook 67; P M Siddle 6-54)
Australia – First innings (Overnight 220-5; S M Katich 50)
M E K Hussey, c Cook b Finn 195/462/26/1
†B J Haddin, c Collingwood b Swann 136/374/16/1
M G Johnson, b Finn 0/32/0/0
X J Doherty, c Cook b Finn 16/43/2/0
P M Siddle, c Swann b Finn 6/7/1/0
B W Hilfenhaus, not out 1/16/0/0
Extras (b4 lb12 w4 nb1) 21
Total (662 min, 158.4 overs) 481
Fall (cont): 6-450, 7-458, 8-462, 9-472, 10-481.
Bowling J M Anderson 37-13-99-2, S C J Broad 33-7-72-0, G P Swann 43-5-128-2, S T Finn 33.4-1-125-6, P D Collingwood 12-1-41-0.
England – Second innings
*A J Strauss, not out 11/49/2/0
A N Cook, not out 6/42/1/0
Extras (lb1 nb1) 2
Total (0 wkts, 15 overs) 19
To bat I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, I R Bell, †M J Prior, S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson, S T Finn.
Bowling: B W Hilfenhaus 6-3-6-0, P M Siddle 4-2-7-0, M J North 2-0-5-0, M G Johnson 2-2-0-0, X J Doherty 1-1-0-0.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and B R Doctrove (WI).
TV Umpire: A L Hill (NZ). Match Referee: J J Crowe (NZ).
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